Book Review: Egyptian history revisited

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 1 Jun 2021

Were Egyptian leaders ever brought to account? Mohamed Afifi’s book, “An alternative history of Egypt” offers an answer

An alternative history of Egypt

The suspension of the production of a TV series on the history of Egyptian Pharaoh Ahmos, of the First Dynasty of the New Kingdom, a couple of months ago, over overwhelming historical inaccuracies, brought about a debate on the role of drama in ‘reflecting on’, ‘presenting’ historical accounts and challenging dominating narratives of history.

In his book 'An alternative history of Egypt,' historian Mohamed Afifi, argues that drama and film production cannot be overlooked as 'new sources' of history, along with literature, music and folk tales.

"We learn a lot about the social dynamics and political choices of Egyptians as we read the three volumes of Naguib Mahfouz Trilogy," Afifi wrote. And, he added, "it was when Egyptian TV aired the soap opera King Farouk [less than 20 years ago] that we got to see an alternative narrative to the role of Egypt’s last monarch that had been offered in a strictly negative light since July 1952."

The original thesis of Afifi’s book is designed to argue the possibility of learning about history through a methodology that might be qualified 'unorthodox' by trained historians.

Literature, music, folk tales and cinema and drama production, Afifi argued throughout his 212 pages are there to offer a perspective that documents might not be able to shed light on. They are there, he suggested, for the public as for the trained historians who might be digging for extra details.

There is no document, Afifi argued, that tells historians of the orders issued by the 1952 government to eliminate Assmahan’s song Mawkeb AlEzz (Parades of glory) that praises the history of the Mohammed Aly Dynasty in the late 1940s film Gharam Wenteqam (Love and Revenge).
It is only something that people would know as they watch the original version of the film and the one that was edited for post 1952 screening, he said.

This, Afifi suggested, tells volumes about the posturing of that administration on arts and culture.

Meanwhile, Afifi argued, there is a plenty of evidence in the cinema and literature production of the 1930s and 1940s that shed considerable light on the nature of the class system in Egypt prior to the July 1952 Revolution in a way that is not necessarily detailed in the documents of the state.

Meanwhile, Afifi also argued that literature, folk sayings and cinema offer a wide avenue for political opponents to share their narrative without having to worry about the possible hazardous consequences.

Again, Afifi is referring to another Mahfouz work: Amam Al Arsh (Before the throne) where he gets the most leading rulers of Egypt, from the time of the Pharaohs to the twentieth century summoned to judgment in the Court of Osiris, where their political behaviour is judged.

This 1983 volume of Mahfouz, Afifi wrote, is not just an opportunity for the authors to share their criticism of contemporary Egyptian leaders. It is also, he added, a space to learn of the failures of those rulers as per the narrative of their opponents who were often oppressed to the point that they could hardly leave any document to tell their story. 

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